Cultural issues: dealing with subtle cultural differences

Working abroad can be very daunting, particularly when the cultural differences are very great. Yet subtle cultural differences can be tricky to handle as well. Sue Shortland considers the need for cultural training, wherever the destination.

Working abroad can be very daunting, particularly when the cultural differences are very great. Yet subtle cultural differences can be tricky to handle as well. Sue Shortland considers the need for cultural training, wherever the destination.It is often said that the USA and the UK are two nations divided by a common language. Although we think we speak the same words, and we, in the UK, are heavily exposed to American culture via the media, our language is quite different, and it is easy for both sides to give offence or create misunderstanding. Language is an artefact of culture we see and hear it every day. However, as with other artefacts of culture, language is just a surface expression of the deep-rooted assumptions and values that represent cultures and make one different from another.When assignees go to live and work abroad and are moving between clearly different cultures (such as the UK and Japan or China, for example), it has become common practice to offer cultural training. The cultural divide is wide, and it is well known that expatriates and their families will need support in understanding the differences, in order to cope with culture shock and to ensure employee productivity. Theoretical approaches to cultural training are, indeed, in the main linked to the degree of difference, with greater rigour, length and type of training depending on this. So, for example, the greater the cultural difference (or cultural distance, as it is sometimes known) the more likely the training course is to be intensive, lengthy and involving affective approaches such as roleplay and simulations (as opposed to briefing and surface-level training).Research into subtle cultural differences and the impact they have on employees and families, in terms of settling in and operating effectively in their new environment, is in its infancy. However, it is known that assignments can fail even when the cultural difference is small. It is common for Americans coming to the UK, for instance, to find the British difficult to work with. Americans often complain that the Brits do not say what they mean and show great reserve. The Brits may find the Americans very direct. Similarly, Canadians and Americans, whose cultures appear on the surface to be even more similar than those of Britons and Americans, experience cultural misunderstandings when undertaking assignments in each other`s countries. The same is true of Australians and New Zealanders, Chinese and Taiwanese; the list goes on.

Cost cutting

So, what does this mean for the HR practitioner especially in times of budgetary constraints, when, typically, one of the first elements to be cut in spending is training? Well, it almost goes without saying that, if cultural training is only usually seen to be important for relocations across major cultural divides (and even that might be under threat in times of cost cutting), then training for those moving between nations where the cultures are perceived to be similar surely should get the chop?To take such action would be regrettable. In a climate of cost control, where each and every assignment is scrutinised to see if it will provide return on investment, and where competition is becoming increasingly sharp, the alternative viewpoint is more important than ever. Nations divided by a common language are, in fact, divided by different cultures, and, no matter how similar these might appear to be on the surface, cultural faux pas and culture shock can lead to loss of business and assignment failure. In some respects, facing major cultural differences can be easier for expatriates they can see what these differences are, and can, therefore, rationalise their explanations for any misunderstandings. Subtle cultural differences cannot be so easily seen or explained, leaving individuals feeling helpless, confused and unhappy. Families feel at a loss and want to come home, and employees are less productive than they might otherwise be.

The value of training

Cultural training can, therefore, be extremely valuable for moves between apparently similar cultures, just as they are for moves between very different cultures. The investment made in it can well be repaid, particularly in times when competition is great and a high premium is placed on success. It is important, therefore, not to cut cultural training for expatriates as part of the effort to save money. It is better to ensure that the assignment is necessary, that the person selected for it is the best and most appropriate, and not to stint on training and preparation, in the knowledge that the payback will be greater in the long run by so doing. In short, whether the move involves countries with obvious cultural differences or subtle ones, the differences themselves can create big problems if they are not identified and training to cope with them provided.© 2009. This article first appeared in the winter 2009/10 edition of Re:locate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.Back issues of Re:locate magazine can be viewed here.